Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Being a Sex Object: Victoria Dahl's SO TOUGH TO TAME

I was talking on the phone with an old friend the other day, reminiscing over funny stories and memorable moments from our college years. There's a story my friend likes to retell, one about the time another friend of ours was complaining about having gone on a dinner date, and how the guy she was with had spent the entire evening talking not to her face, but to her chest. "You don't know how annoying it is, having guys look at you only for your body, not for your brain," she informed my friend, a guy. It being a joke amongst some in our crowd to tease this guy for his apparent lack of appeal with the ladies, my friend riposted, "Yeah, well, you wouldn't catch me complaining. Just once in my life I'd love it if someone stared at me only for my body..."

Supermodel David Gandy, a fav among
many of my NECRWA chaptermates
In the twenty-first century, though, women are no longer the only ones who can be viewed as sex objects. Hot male actors bare their abs and pecs, and women around the world post Facebook and Tumblr paeons to their beautiful bods. Even hotter male models do the same to sell everything from underwear to cologne, and again the women (not to mention many gay males) swoon. My friend's story made me wonder: what are the pleasures for a man of being regarded as a sex object? Are they similar to, or different from, the pleasures available to women? And are there any downsides? Would my friend really like it if it happened to him, not just once, but over and over again?

I had my friend's story, and these questions, in the back of my mind as I was reading Victoria Dahl's latest contemporary romance, So Tough to Tame. Everyone assumes that for cowboy Walker Pearce, easy on the eyes and quick with the flirt, being the go-to guy for any woman in the greater Jackson Hole area who wants strings-free sex must be as close to heaven as a guy on earth can get. Ever since high school, Walker's known just what to say to women young and old to charm the socks (or other pieces of clothing) right off them whenever he felt the need to "scratch an itch."

Yet underneath his good-natured charm, Walker's carrying around a whole shitload of insecurity. He's never been in any relationship that's lasted for more than few months—no women, especially the smart women he really goes for, think him worth more than a few rolls in the hay. He's nearly thirty, but he's got "exactly as much to his name" as he had when he left high school: "a big truck, a strong back, good hands, and some almost-promising ranch work lined up" (51). And he's not even got what everyone else from high school left with: a diploma. His dyslexia, and his own low opinion of his intellect, an opinion only confirmed by the verbal and physical abuse dealt out by his ornery father, has him believing all he'll ever be good for is what he can do with his body: lug bales of hay; rope a cow; and have sex with women, none of whom will want him to stay longer than they need to find their own pleasure. And now he's been fired from a job he really enjoyed, all because he drew the attention of the boss's cheated-on wife, and fell into making out with her more through happenstance and others' expectations than from any real desire for the woman of his own. Men are supposed to like it when women offer them sex, aren't they? Why would he say no?

Our cultural assumptions about which gender wants
sex, and which gender wants other things, too...
When Walker's high school tutor, the smartest girl in school, returns home to take a job at a local resort, Walker's not surprised to find himself attracted to her. But just like in high school, he thinks there's no way Charlie Allingham could be interested in a guy with as little going for him as he has. But Charlie's no longer the demure sixteen-year old virgin who was too shy to act on her crush on Walker, and the two quickly fall into a steamy sexual fling. But with Walker convinced Charlie's only in it for his body—

She'd left his apartment with a friendly "Thank you," as if he'd done her a service. And that's probably all it had been to her. He'd heard that same "Thank you," before. More times than he cared to count, actually. Thanks, cowboy, that was just what I needed. (113)

—and Charlie careful not to expect too much, given Walker's ladykiller rep—

...he couldn't stop thinking of all the other thing she'd said since they'd started messing around. That he wasn't her boyfriend. That it was only stress relief. That he wasn't the marrying type and she wasn't possessive. (209)

—it's hardly a surprise that neither Walker nor Charlie can believe that their fling could turn into anything more than superficial sex. Yet Walker's beginning to wonder if "Thanks for the ride, cowboy" is all that he'll ever hear. "Yeah, he got it. And hell, he was up for a good time, but what if he wanted more than that?" (210).

At first, Walker assumes that the only way to get that something "more" is to "stop dating women who were so far above his station" (210). The smart ones, the witty ones, the ones glowing with intelligence and humor (Oh, yeah, this romance is a tasty bit of wish-fulfillment for girls who were nerdy geeks in high school :-)). Only if Walker dates the dull ones, the ones who don't make him dissatisfied with the role he'd taken on early in life, a role that once fit comfortably, but has now begun to chafe—"just a big package of physical labor" (210)—does he have a chance at experiencing something different than what the good-time guy role offers.

But what Walker really needs is to ask not for less, but for more—more from his friends, more from his brother, more from Charlie, and, most importantly, more from himself. Being a sex object certainly has its perks, perks that both Walker and Charlie have enjoyed in the past, and continue to enjoy with each other in the present. But the limits it places, on both women and men, Dahl's novel argues, means that it's only one role among many that both sexes can and should take pleasure in donning.

Photo credits:
David Gandy: Ftape.com
Sex Ven Diagram cartoon: The New Yorker, April 5, 2010. Via Culture Mulcher

So Tough to Tame
HQN, 2013


  1. Apropos of nothing here but can I just vent for a moment? I just finished an historical that at first blush appeared feminist (escaped a domineering father and made a career for herself), but then the hero rescued the heroine from rape. Twice. Then he kidnapped her himself and coerced her into sex. Tell me, am I safe with any writer of historicals besides Courtney Milan? Because the more I read, the more frustrated I get.

    1. Hey, anonymous, sorry you're running into such historical romance duds. If you click on the "historical romance" subject tab in the right-hand column above, you'll find reviews of other historical romances I've discussed on the blog. Perhaps you'll find one that sounds interesting?

  2. My breasts have had the most awful, and to be fair sometimes interesting, conversations without me. It has nothing to do with what I'm wearing, who I'm with or what I'm projecting out into the world. In a sense, complete strangers, almost entirely men, feel they have "rights" to my body. To me that's direct personal sexual objectification and it has to do with a perceived power differential.

    Selling magazines, products or even one's own celebrity status is a different kind of sexual objectification because it's purposeful sexual objectification of self in order to get greater "rewards."

    What I received from your description is that Walker's situation is one of his own making. He has cultivated a certain lifestyle. It no longer makes him happy and he wants to be more... More powerful? more intelligent? considered more stable? more civilized?

    Walker sounds like a fairly standard romance rake character. On a base superficial level, he sounds like the Jason Stackhouse character on True Blood. Or maybe the Johnny Castle character from Dirty Dancing.

    What factors come into play that make this story more feminist than others?

    For the purposes of this post, should purposeful sexual objectification be considered equal to unwanted and unsolicited sexual objectification? And to ask the next question, would your friend feel differently if he were sexually objectified by another male? If so, why?

    1. Hi, AQ:

      You bring up great questions in this response. I definitely agree that there's a difference between purposeful sexual objectification and unsolicited sexual objectification, and that women are far more often on the receiving end of the latter than are men.

      I'm wondering if the line between the two is always so clear-cut, though? Or maybe what I'm really thinking is that inviting others to regard you as a sexual object may not always be done solely out of a desire for selfish gain? When a person invites others to see him or her as a sexual object in order to gain a reward, it matters to me what motivations lie behind that invitation. Was the invitation extended because the person thought her or himself unworthy of any other kind of attention? That's what Dahl suggests is going on with Walker.

      Why I think Dahl's book is feminist is because it calls into question something U.S. culture often takes as a given: that for an unattached guy, no-strings sex is the ultimate pleasure, something no guy would, or should, ever turn down. Walker has bought into this myth, but it's coming back to bite him as he finds himself pigeonholed by his past actions, unable to forge a relationship beyond one of casual sex with a woman. Unlike many romance hero rakes, he doesn't struggle mightily against falling for his one true love, giving up his rakish ways because of her; instead, Walker starts to recognize how his own rakish actions have limited his possibilities for ways to interact with members of the opposite sex. Such recognition works to interrogate cultural beliefs about masculinity, a clearly feminist act.

      Unwanted sexual objectification is a difficult, and quite serious problem. But invited sexual objectification, whether the invitation comes from a woman or a man, seems worth talking about, too, from a feminist perspective.

    2. As the protaganist in JCH's story, yes, I would feel differently if the sexual attention came in any non-dating situation -- as a straight guy, that would involve any interaction with men -- it would also involve work situations with my manager, who is female. People on first dates typically do two things -- try to sell themselves (that is, allow purposeful sexual objectification, among other things, to gain the other's approval), and evaluate if they want to chase the person with whom they are on the date. I can understand any person who wants to be evaluated on MORE than just physical attractiveness, but I am envious of those who walk into dating situations with the knowledge that they have the "hotness" box checked off.

    3. I guess I never thought of going out on a date as purposeful sexually objectifying myself. Will have to think about the concept and ask around to how my dating friends see it.

      I have a couple follow-up question.

      1. What does "hotness" mean exactly? Is it self-perceived physical attractiveness and confidence or something else entirely? Has this meaning changed at all depending on how old you were?

      2. If the date you were with spent the night talking to your cock, how/why would that check-off your hotness box?

      3. Would that change if your date's cock talking extended beyond you to say the male servers or bartenders?

      Finally just to be sure we are on the same page here. When you talk of purposeful sexual objectification as it pertains to dating for yourself, are you talking about it as an expression of your empowerment over women or women treating you like a commodity? Or something else entirely?

      Thank you in advance for your responses.

    4. 1. Hotness to me is physical attractiveness -- something one can tell from a picture. It has not changed for me, but it's role in my assessment of others has changed radically.
      2. My date would not talk to my cock -- it is not all that --but if for example she spent the whole evening staring at my ass, I would conclude that (a) I had a cute ass and (b) I was dating a rude person,
      3. If my date was indiscriminately checking out everyone, I would conclude that (a) my ass was cute and (b) I was dating an even ruder person.

      Purposeful sexual objectification -- I was talking about people who make THEMSELVES into sex objects -- at least in part. Wearing clothes that show you off -- or wearing cologne or trimming your beard neatly -- all these things make you look more attractive. If I appear try to appear more physically attractive I am making it easier for someone to objectify me -- and I might want that attention until I have determined if I like my date.

    5. That said, there is no excuse for bad manners. If I were on a date with a woman who spent all night staring at my body and not following the conversation, or sharing anything about herself, I might be flattered by the attention. But I would also NOT be interested in a second date -- the person is shallow and rude, and right now I am not interested in shallow and rude. If my date spent the night checking out everyone at the bar, she is inconsiderate and I am not interested in inconsiderate right now.

      I can not speak for women, but there are times when a man wants to meet a woman for a long term relationship. There are other times when a man wants to meet a woman for casual sex. One is looking for a different set of characteristics based on the goal. In the story, Walker has been meeting women for casual sex or short term relationships and has perfected his strategy to get that. But he has no idea how to get a long term relationship with someone he would find interesting or challenging. And it appears he is starting to feel that he does not have the talent -- smarts, wit, sensitivity -- to ever have that.

    6. My experience has been the opposite. I have had success meeting women for long term relationships -- where both the woman and I were interested in having all the complexities of a relationship -- including hot sex, great conversation, emotional support, shared activities, etc. Those are the women that laugh at my jokes, But I have been ineffective in the goal of finding an attractive woman for one night of fun -- or maybe for a month long fling. I would imagine that I would have more success with the shallow chemical relationship if more women were checking out my ass. as opposed to laughing at my jokes. Walker needs more women to laugh at his jokes.

    7. I think my problem is with the use of the term sexual objectification.

      My interpretation of your use makes sexual objectification well superficial and very narrow.

      Why isn't wanting to look nice at work or the grocery store or the library sexual objectification? Assuming that one is trolling for either sexual partners, power over others or societal acceptance, then anything one does to enhance one's attractiveness is defacto sexual objectification of self.

    8. AQ, how do YOU define the term "sexual objectification"?

    9. I believe I already defined how I view sexual objectification in my very first comment. It has to do with power, or perceived power of the other individual.

      In the case of being a sexual object on a passive level, it's other people thinking they have rights to your body. Whether it's to stare at it rudely, touch it, ask inappropriate questions or try to take it to satisfy their power over others "need." Rapists don't necessarily care about what their victims were wearing or even if they are sexually "hot."

      The other version is purposeful sales of self for self-promotion. Magazines, movies, etc. Impersonal to generate rewards for self. Yes, inviting others to sexually objectify you but from afar. Stalkers don't heed the from afar piece.

      Are there more definitions? Sure. But checking the hotness box doesn't really qualify because hotness by itself does not imply a power differential. Could it lead to one? Yes. Could it be a purposeful attempt to empower one's self over others? Again, yes. The problem is that too often that hotness box is used to justify rape culture so I can't go along with wanting to be thought of as a sexually viable short-term or long-term partner as self-sexual objectification.

      I am curious. If you really do want to be sexually objectified, based on your version of the term, are you a passive recipient of the objectification or are you actively seeking it in order to have power over others? If actively seeking it, then what have you done to achieve it? If not successful, then what do you perceive as the failure point? And if a passive recipient, why do you think you aren't sexually objectified?

      An aside:
      The thing about that hotness box you talk of. Or rather what I have found in my life (admittedly a very small circle) is that hotness doesn't necessarily have anything to do with ideal beauty, the clothes someone wears or their accessories. Some of sexiest women I know really aren't much more than cute on that cultural beauty chart. They might not even have that hotness box checked. Not really. But my gawd, watch them work that gosh darn room and you'll be fanning yourself. I've watched guys of a similar caliber do the same thing. I've also seen the people of both sexes do this in the what do I think I can get out of the connection people.

      Jackie, I ventured out to blogger and professional review sites. The gender double standards and general incompetence of Charlie at her chosen professional make me wonder if the sexual objectification of Walker is enough to make this a "feminist" romance novel.

      One reviewer who loved, loved, loved the book said Walker makes a bad decision but Charlie is a bad person. Another reviewer pointed out that Charlie's friends try to change the way she dresses and make her into a "good" girl again. Multiple reviewers found her stupid and naive.

      The excerpts I read inside Charlie's head made think this woman is clueless. Certainly not an executive level security professional who I'd want overseeing a staff or interacting with important clients. She must have been very good at sex if her boss promoted her. Could this be self-sexual objectification? Yes, that's me sounding annoyed since the questions I asked in good faith regarding the book remain unanswered.

      I do find it interesting that Charlie's affair is given the "I don't know he was married" excuse while Walker's affair isn't "technically" adultery since there was no vaginal penetration.

      The book on order from the library so I will be curious to see how my impressions from the blogger & professional reviews line up with my own reading experience and the argument presented in your post.


    10. One more thought occurred to me, you said that there is no excuse for bad manners and rudeness and that you wouldn't be interested in a second date as your response to being hypothetically treated as object.

      I guess I have a hard time believing you really want to be sexually objectified at all. I'm almost inclined to think that what you want is to feel like you imagine people you designate as having their hotness box checked feels. Kind of like imagining what the winning quarterback of a superbowl team might feel or how a rock star feels when the women throw panties or ask them to sign their breasts. It's something we (and I'm including myself or maybe I should only speak for myself) assign to others based on our own perceptions regardless of whether or not our perceptions match their reality.

    11. AQ:

      Interesting -- I hadn't read others' takes on Charlie. She definitely makes mistakes, mistakes that the text clearly indicates are mistakes: sleeping with her supervisor wasn't wrong because he was married (because she didn't know it), but she did eventually admit to herself that sleeping with him probably got her the promotion, because she wasn't really qualified for the position. So her story arc is about accepting her mistakes, her bad choices, and trying to move beyond them.

      I'll be interested to hear your thoughts after you read the book, AQ, about sexual objectification. Dahl's novel suggests that during sex, sexual objectification can be a turn-on -- the power dynamic you suggest is at play, in ways that can be sexually stimulating. Objectification without consent -- ASSUMING you have the right to stare/touch/control someone else's body--is not at all what Dahl is advocating.

      Where would you place having sex/using your sexual attractiveness to make yourself feel better? In any of the categories you outline? Or in a different place altogether?

  3. So I've thought about this overnight. Mind's still whirling around the concepts. Where to start?

    Is cultural conditioning of men a topic worthy of feminist introspection? Yes.

    Is male promiscuity an act of self sexual objectification? It's an interesting thought to explore. But I'm not sure you've made the case one way or the other. Or rather I'm not sure I understand the finer points of your argument.

    Let me begin by asking questions because I really do want to know:

    1. What is the central question of the story and who is the story about?

    2. How long does Walker go without sex? How many women proposition him during the story? How many women does he turn down?

    3. What is the length of time between meeting Charlie again and them having sex? Who initiates the encounter?

    4. How long is Walker without a job? What type of financial hardship does he experience?

    5. How long is the courtship between Walker and Charlie in the story?

    6. How does Charlie treat Walker as a sexual object? What's her motivation?

    7. How long does his social outcast status last?

    1. Hi, AQ:

      Sorry for taking so long to get back to you -- holiday travels have interfered with blogging response time.

      I've returned Dahl's book to the library, so I'll be answering your questions from memory -- fingers crossed that they'll be accurate.

      1. With romance novels with dual point of view, the question "how are these two people going to work together to create a successful relationship" is always at the center. But romances with more complex characters also have character arcs. For me, Walker's character arc was the more interesting one: moving from a man with a healthy self-respect for his physical & sexual skills but with a lot of insecurities about his intelligence and ability to appeal to smart women, to a man who can acknowledge that his learning disability (dyslexia) and his father's verbal abuse do not define or limit who he is. Walker decides against carrying on an affair with a married woman, starts to imagine what a long-term relationship with a woman whose intelligence he admires might be like, and chooses to go back and earn his GED so he can qualify for the job he really wants, working at a horse barn for disabled kids.

      2. I don't remember specifically how long Walker goes without sex. The novel opens with him refusing the sexual advances of his former boss's wife; she accosts him again later in the novel, and he turns her down then, too. I think there are a few more casual turn-downs, where a woman he doesn't know expresses general interest in him at a bar and at a party, and he chooses against pursuing the invitation.

      3. Walker and Charlie knew each other in high school. She left town for college, then to pursue career opportunities. I believe they are in their late twenties/early thirties when they meet again. Charlie is the one who instigates sex, if I'm remembering correctly.

      4. Walker is out of work at the opening of the novel, although he is able to pick up occasional short-term gigs (a day or a week). He's able to pay his rent, but as I mentioned in the original post, he doesn't have much in the way of savings or anything beyond his truck to his name.

      5. Not sure I'm remembering this correctly, but I believe the courtship takes place over a month or so.

      6. As a high schooler, Charlie was the smart good girl -- no real boyfriends, no real sexual encounters. Once she went to college, she became friends with other students for whom the good girl/bad girl dichotomy was not the only model for a woman's sexuality. She explored her own sexual desire, and didn't need to be in a long-term relationship to enjoy sexual encounters. Knowing of Walker's reputation as a lady's man, Charlie assumes that any sexual relationship she has with him will not lead to long-term commitments.

      7. Did I say that Walker was a social outcast? I'm not remembering that...

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